Monday Matters (May 25, 2020)

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I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

     -Ephesians 3:16-19

Busily working for the church does not necessarily mean we are being nourished by the life-empowering feast of faith. Being actively involved in the church does not automatically mean we are spiritually growing. Our church work is a loving response of stewardship to serve God’s kingdom as a follower of Jesus. The work, however, can become so overwhelming that we miss the most precious gift the church has to offer. A relationship with God, framed by Jesus’ teachings, is the most transformative gift the church can give our long-serving, dedicated servants of Christ.

-The Rev. Dr. Dawn Davis from the introduction to the Revive curriculum

Relationship

“Christianity is not about following rules, it is about having a relationship with Jesus.”

I might imagine this quote coming from evangelical brothers and sisters who speak often about having a personal relationship with Jesus. The quote actually comes from Pope Frances. In a homily preached on May 15, he went on to say that such relationship is not a matter of ‘things to do’ – ‘If I do this, you give me that.” He noted: Such a relationship would be “commercial” while Jesus gives everything, including his life, gratuitously.

Grace.

The theme of relationship is embedded in the service of Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer. The candidate is asked: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to follow him and obey him as Lord? Sounds like relationship to me.

I’ve been thinking about how we go about building that relationship. I compared it last week to a car trip, whether God is in on the side of the road, at the service station, in the car with us or maybe behind the steering wheel. That analogy, with its limits, triggered other parables from readers.

One friend said that church leaders, clergy in particular, often get “too caught up with the splash programming or community draw, forgetting that, as Evelyn Underhill notes, God is the interesting thing about religion.” He said it’s like hosting a basketball game and spending all the time on the concessions stand and lighting of the stadium, but just a smidgeon on the actual game prep.

The Rev. Dr. Dawn Davis said that the difference between knowing about God and being in a relationship with God is like reading a recipe instead of enjoying the meal. You can see more of her comments on relationship with God included above. Good stuff.

I myself often marvel that at museums, the gift shop is the most crowded room. Masterpieces go unnoticed. What’s that about? Instead of just experiencing, enjoying the beauty from a creative hand greater than ourselves, we try to possess it, capture it, maybe even limit it, control it. Is there any parallel with religious experience?

What would it mean to deepen a relationship with God? How do we experience such a thing? Experience is a big part of the journey of faith. Along with reading scripture, learning from our tradition, tapping into God-given reason, measuring it all against the wisdom of the community, some kind of experience of God is key to spiritual growth. Otherwise, why bother?

Sure, like anything, the notion of a relationship with God can go off the rails. It can become overly individualistic. You and me and God, and I’m not so sure about you. As in all things religious, we can use the notion to divide or separate if we so choose. Years ago, my sister jokingly (I think) gave me a bumper sticker that read: Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.  Again, scripture, tradition, reason, community can keep us on track.

All of that comes with practice, in both senses of the word. We practice in the sense that we get better, go deeper, the more we do it. That’s true of any relationship, growing as we attend to it. We also practice in the sense that we make it practical. We act on it, which is why spiritual practices matter. We do that through prayer, not only giving God our wish list, but sitting in God’s presence and listening. We do that as we attend to God’s word. It comes with a regular commitment to worship, letting bread and wine feed us. It comes with generosity, being a giver, being of service which is how we come to know God’s character, how we meet Jesus.

Take this week to think about what it means to have a relationship with the Holy One, the living God, with Jesus. What might you do this week to help that relationship grow?

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 

Consider this great resource for personal spiritual growth during this pandemic (when many of us find ourselves sheltering in place).

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday (May 18, 2020)

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God be in my head, and in my understanding; God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.

-Hymn 694

 

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

-John 14:20

Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him-though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said.

-Acts 17:22-28

God in my life

At the door, parishioner greets the preacher…

“Thank you so much for that powerful sermon. When you began by saying ‘Let us pray,’ that really struck me. It made me think about my need to pray, how amazing it is that God wishes us to pray. It was so impactful. In fact, I didn’t hear anything else you said.”

I was reminded of that story in Morning Prayer last week. We begin that service with the confession, and we begin the confession with three words: “Most merciful God.”  For some reason, after reciting that confession many times. I stopped at that first line, meditating on what those three words mean, how much they convey. In those three words, there’s a world of theology. There’s a creed.

Those three words remind me that I am called to live my life not solely as a free agent, as a matter of my own choosing, my own preferences on what it means to be ethical or good or successful. Those choices have everything to do with life lived in a relationship with a living God who calls me to a particular path, a way of life, who calls me to obedience.

The good news, of course, in that three-word creed is that we pray to a God whose quality it is always to have mercy. That opening line suggests an expansive theology of grace through which, as Rob Bell says, there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. As intro to the confession, it also invites reflection on our actions and attitudes. It challenges us to mindfulness, remembering that our lives unfold in God’s presence, that our lives are meant to move into deeper union with God and neighbor, that we have both freedom and responsibility in that relationship. We confess the ways in which we block growth in that relationship. We confess in order to go deeper in love of God and neighbor.

There’s a similar reminder in the first few words of the Lord’s prayer. It begins: Our Father who art in heaven. There’s a lot of theology in those few words as well. Meditate on all that phrase means. We are called to live our lives, to express our concerns to a transcendent God miraculously engaged in our lives, to a God who exists in that reality we call heaven. Sure, we now see through a glass darkly and don’t know what that celestial reality is like. We get only inklings, but we also claim it as foundational reality for all of life, all our prayers, all our hopes. God, in his heaven, is interested in our daily bread, in our temptations, in our ability to forgive. That’s quite amazing actually.

Maybe all of this sounds basic and obvious. But I know for myself, I often live as a functional atheist, forgetting or ignoring God’s presence. I often refer to a letter that Evelyn Underhill wrote in the 1930’s to the Archbishop of Canterbury. She was concerned about what she observed in the clergy of the day. A key line in that letter: God is the interesting thing about religion and people are hungry for God. I have wondered what compelled her to note that God is the interesting thing about religion. Had the clergy forgotten? I wonder how I might be like those clergy, worrying about to-do lists, about how people perceive and receive me, about temporal measures of success, pushing aside awareness of God’s loving presence, as creator, redeemer, sustainer, forgetting to give thanks for the amazing grace of a most merciful God.

A colleague describes that growing relationship as follows. If our spiritual journey is like a road trip, sometimes we act as if we drive the car all alone. The journey is up to us. Sometimes as we drive, we stop for directions or fuel or snacks, maybe getting a dose of religion to keep us going, but not overdoing it. Maybe God is actually in the car with us in the passenger seat, God as our co-pilot. Or maybe God is actually driving the car and we travel with God leading the way, God at the center. It’s not a perfect analogy, but makes me ask: where is God in my life’s road trip?

A friend once hosted a dinner for co-workers. Most were not religiously observant. She invited them, giving them a heads-up that dinner conversation would be about each guest completing this sentence. God in my life… Much to her surprise, everyone had a story. As you reflect on your life this week, what does it look like to live in the presence of a most merciful God, a Father in heaven? What would you say if you had been invited to that dinner party?

                                                                                    

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 

Consider this great resource for personal spiritual growth during this pandemic (when many of us find ourselves sheltering in place).

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (May 11, 2020)

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Simeon blessed them and said to Jesus’ mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

-Luke 2:34-35

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 

-Matthew 23.37

But kids don’t stay with you if you do it right. It’s the one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won’t be needed in the long run.

-Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven

To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. But, I’m learning that recognizing and leaning into the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us how to live with joy, gratitude and grace.

-Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

 

So how on earth can I bring a child into the world, knowing that such sorrow lies ahead, that it is such a large part of what it means to be human. I’m not sure. That’s my answer: I’m not sure.

-Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year

Mother’s Day

I preached (from a distance) yesterday, which was Mother’s Day. It’s never been my practice to preach about mothers on this day, as much as I loved my own mother. I know other clergy do different things, and my practice has been a disappointment to some over the years. I recall one vociferous parishioner who assailed my wife on the way out of church one Mother’s Day because I had not mentioned mothers in my sermon. God bless clergy spouses. They aren’t paid enough.

It’s not because mothers have not been on my mind and in my heart.  Earlier this year, both my mother and my step-mother transitioned to eternal life. They each had long, full lives, for which we give thanks. I’ve been thinking a lot about both of them in recent days, missing them, thinking I should give them a call, ignoring reminders to send them flowers. It made me think about how motherhood, how parenthood, how any relationship marked by love probably always brings some bit of sorrow with it.

In this heavy season of health and economic crisis, with lots of loss, my thoughts and prayers went out to mothers for all kinds of reasons. I think of mothers of those who have lost loved ones to this virus, and those children concerned about their mothers who are isolated, maybe in nursing homes where they can’t be visited. I think of mothers of 20% of the children in our country who don’t have enough to eat. I’m praying for a mother I know whose son ended his life this past week, a loss beyond imagination. I think of mothers who risked everything, covering hundreds of dangerous miles in the hopes of a better future for their children, who were then separated at the borders, now apparently forgotten in the crush of other news. I think of the mother of a young man in Georgia who died jogging while black. Those are the mothers on my heart this morning. Who is on your heart and in your prayers?

None of this goes on a Hallmark card. It may feel like a downer on a Monday morning. But love and suffering seem to go together. That’s in the Bible, in the story of Moses’ mother (Exodus 1) who in a dramatic act of faith, courage and self-sacrifice set her baby in a make-shift boat in the river, letting him go, trusting him to God’s care. I think of Hannah who couldn’t have children until late in life and when her child, Samuel, arrived, she turned him over to a life in the temple, giving him over to God’s care. (I Samuel 3) I think of the words that came to Mary, mother of our Lord, from Simeon in the temple (included above). Simeon says that as a mother, a sword will go through Mary’s heart. It’s central to our faith, with its crucial moment at that place where love and sorrow flow mingled down. We sing as we survey the wondrous cross: Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?

All of which is to say that we give thanks for the ministry of mothers, even when on occasion they drive us nuts. (Part of why I hold back on preaching about mothers, is that there are many complicated relationships between parents and children, some healthy, some not so much.) But we also recognize that mothers know better than anyone that when we open our hearts, we let pain in. When it comes to any expression of love, there is cost along with promise. In the midst of it all, we hear story after story about how grace abounds, overcomes, supersedes. With that in mind, maybe preachers don’t need to talk about mothers in sermons. The mothers themselves preach the finest sermons, thank you very much.

As we give thanks for mothers, as we did this past weekend, perhaps we can be mindful of those whose motherhood bears pain this day, and aim towards a world where that pain can be relieved. Is there anything you can do this week towards that end? Begin with prayer.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (May 4, 2020)

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O day of peace that dimly shines, through all our hopes and prayers and dreams. Guide us to justice, truth and love, delivered from our selfish schemes. May swords of hate fall from our hands, our hearts from envy find release, till by God’s grace our warring world shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

-Hymn 597, Hymnal 1982

It is better to rely on the Lord than to put any trust in flesh. It is better to rely on the Lord than to put any trust in rulers.

-Psalm 118:8,9

Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

-John 16:31-33
 
When you expect the world to end at any moment, you know there is no need to hurry. You take your time, you do your work well.
-Thomas Merton
 
Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
-John Lennon (among others)

Apocalypse now

I was talking with a wise friend last week. She noted that a number of her friends had commented on the beautiful weather we’ve been having here in North Carolina. It has indeed been stunning. But she wondered: Is it distinctively so? Maybe it’s always been this nice. Maybe we just didn’t notice.

That same day, I heard a radio interview with a religious scholar about the times in which we live. He was not a person in the stream of Christian thought, but he referred to apocalypse, a persistent theme in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I don’t know what associations you have with the word. First thing that comes to mind for me is absolute destruction, the end of the world, movies with things blowing up, space ships destroying cities, nuclear devastation, climate reigning terror in floods or hurricanes or fires. That’s obviously a big part of what the word apocalyptic means.

This religious scholar reminded me that the word comes from the Greek apokalyptein, which means to uncover, reveal. Break the word down: apo (off, away from) and kalyptein (to cover, conceal). It’s why the last book of the Bible is referred to as either the Revelation of John or the Apocalypse of John. There’s a sense in which an apocalypse suggests the pulling back of a theater curtain to see something new, to see the action. There’s a whole body of writing in the Bible that is referred to as apocalyptic literature, showing us something we hadn’t seen before, revealing truth that can be scary but can also bring hope for days ahead.

All this may be more than you want to tackle early on a Monday morning, but stay with me. I’ve been thinking of the Easter sermons I’ve heard in recent weeks. As I shelter in place, my inner church-geek surfaces so that I’ve listened to sermons and teachings from all kinds of churches. A few questions have come through repeatedly: How was the resurrected Jesus revealed to folks? What did it mean to see him? What did it mean to recognize him? Were they the same thing? How did folks come to discover that his presence has been with him all along? How was he apocalypsed?

Surely, there is doom and gloom associated with apocalypse. These days, so many in our world face that doom and gloom due to the current health crisis. People near and far are going through hell, experiencing first hand the familiar understanding of the word apocalypse. More lies ahead. Lord, have mercy. We are called to pray for them, with them, in word and action.

But another thing is happening. People are discovering holy presence in new ways, in the midst of the challenge. That presence is being revealed. It is being apocalypsed. I’ve seen it in simple things: Basic kindness in traffic or at grocery stores. We’ve become a lab for love of neighbor. Families dining together, putting down phones and actually conversing. Watching Sunday church together over pancakes. Gardens tended, celebrating beauty. Prayer as one of many spiritual practices bringing sustenance. An admission of a hunger for community. A recognition of love of liturgy.

Casting a broader vision, we see the courage (bravery + heart) of health care workers, retired doctors heroically running towards the epicenter from all over the country, like firemen running towards burning building, reckless generosity of funds. All of it is a revelation of what is important and what is not. I’m wondering what is being revealed to you in this time.

These days, there’s talk of going back to the way things were, to normal, whatever that was. My guess is that will not happen. Perhaps it shouldn’t. Biblical apocalyptic visions speak of a new heaven and a new earth, tears wiped away, lion and lamb living in peaceable kingdom, neither a child nor an old person victim of illness. Perhaps, without knowing exactly what that will look like, we can move towards that new life and find it a place where equity and compassion, service and community, faith and love become more real. Are you ready for that to happen? How might you be part of it this week?

What are you noticing these days? What is being revealed? What are you expecting in these apocalyptic times?

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (April 27, 2020)

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Jay (or better yet, plug in your own name), I lay my hands upon you in the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, beseeching him to uphold you and fill you with his grace, that you may know the healing power of his love.  Amen.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ

-II Corinthians 1:3-5

This is another day, O Lord.  I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus.  Amen.

-page 461, Book of Common Prayer

Healing Prayers

Early in my ministry, it was my privilege to serve in a big, lively church in Washington. One of the active (and surprising) ministries I found upon arrival was a ministry of healing. This was the surprise. This church was filled with some of Washington’s most accomplished leaders. If they had needs for healing, they seemed pretty well disguised.

In this ministry, clergy and lay people would pray with people who came forward to a chapel after receiving communion. I observed this for a while, a steady stream of people each Sunday. I was surprised because I had been prejudiced about healing ministries, imagining with some good reason that it was a tool of charlatans and show-people, snookering snake handlers, people profiting from pain, raising false hope, toying with the peril of promise, misleading people in moments of vulnerability. But I changed my mind.

One Sunday, one of the healing ministers didn’t show up. Coach pulled me from the bullpen. I was put in that person’s place, asked to offer prayers for healing, which I did so a bit reluctantly. After a brief tutorial, I began. Person after person came forward, offering their name and the concerns on their hearts. I prayed with them, using the form of the prayer found above and then adding a prayer for the moment.

It was a turning point for me, as I witnessed folks who seemed like they had life together coming forward. It made me realize we all have needs for healing. Scratch the surface of the most put together person, talk to that person for 5 minutes, and you can find an area of brokenness, of body, mind, spirit, memory, relationship, a concern for healing of our society, a concern for healing of creation.

Since that time, I’ve come to believe that just about everything we do in church has to do with healing, with making things whole, which is just one way of describing the word salvation. And while I’ve come to regard healing as a central ministry of the church, the more I think about it, the more I realize we enter into mysteries. Why do some prayers for healing seem to result in cure and others don’t? Where do healing and cure overlap? Where do they diverge?

I note in the gospels that Jesus was, among other things, a healer. It was a sign of divinely anointed status (a.k.a., Messiah). But it’s also a mystery, as he doesn’t approach healing in the same way with every person. Sometimes he has to be asked to heal. Sometimes he approaches people and asks if they would like to be healed. Sometimes he links healing to faith. Sometimes he links healing to forgiveness. He doesn’t heal everyone. He heals old people and children. He heals rich people, people of influence. He heals outsiders, foreigners and lepers, who bring nothing to the table but need. And he passed on healing ministries to his disciples. And they have passed those ministries on to us. Which brings us to pandemic. Healing is on everyone’s mind.

So where do you see need of healing in your own life this week? If it’s helpful, make a list of those needs (short or long) and pray that list each morning. Maybe even share that list with someone you care about and have them pray for you.

And ask: Who are the healers you see around you? Make a list and pray for them each morning, with thanksgiving. They may be health professionals, people shaping policy, church folk, family and friends. Pray in thanksgiving for them. Pray that they be strengthened to continue with courage (bravery and heart).

Then think about your call. How is God calling you to be a healer, even one as reluctant as I was in the D.C. church? Write at least ten needs for healing you see in the world around you, nearby and far away, local and global. Pray each morning for those needs. Ask God how you can be an instrument of God’s healing power. Ask God by praying not only with your lips but with your life.

-Jay Sidebotham

4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

Consider this great resource for personal spiritual growth during this pandemic (when many of us find ourselves sheltering in place).

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (April 20, 2020)

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There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice, which is more than liberty.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given.

There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior; There is healing in His blood.

For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more simple, we should take Him at His word;
And our lives would be thanksgiving for the goodness of our Lord.

Souls of men! why will ye scatter like a crowd of frightened sheep?
Foolish hearts! why will ye wander from a love so true and deep?

But we make His love too narrow by false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness with a zeal He will not own.

Was there ever kinder shepherd half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us come and gather at His feet?

 

-Excerpts from poem (and hymn text) by Frederick William Faber (1814-1863)

Lord have mercy

We often pray: Lord, have mercy. I’ve often thought we don’t have to ask God to have mercy. That’s part of the deal. That’s in the character of the Holy One. We just need to see it, to recognize it, to remember it.

Last Friday, in Morning Prayer, we read Psalm 136, which covers the history of just about everything in the Hebrew Scriptures. Each verse (there are 26 of them) lists something God has done, and then calls for the response: God’s mercy endures forever.

At the end of that morning service, there’s the General Thanksgiving (p. 101 in the Book of Common Prayer) which asks that we be given an awareness of God’s mercies. That phrase always stops me. Spiritually speaking I can tend to be more clueless, more forgetful, more indifferent than aware. So maybe the spiritual challenge for this week is awareness, a particular challenge in times when there seems to be more judgment than mercy.

There are synonyms for awareness.  We can speak of mindfulness. We can speak of intentionality. The eucharistic prayer refers to a technical Greek liturgical term: anamnesis. Literally, not amnesia. Not forgetting.

So what do you think it means to grow in awareness of God’s mercies? Perhaps it begins with an attitude of gratitude, giving thanks in all things, even in this crazy and difficult season. This is where awareness as intentionality, perhaps even stubborn willfulness, may matter. What one, five, ten, fifty things can you be thankful for today? Note as you try this spiritual exercise if it shifts anything for you?

Maybe awareness of mercies means putting ourselves in the place of someone in greater need than we are. Now more than ever, we live in our bubbles. Yet the fragility of life, the vulnerability of those in need of medical care or food or funds or companionship screams at us. Maybe that awareness can manifest not only in our lips but in our lives, with creative acts of kindness as we remain sequestered. What might you do to show mercy, as God is merciful?

Maybe awareness of mercies calls us to look at that part of ourselves that honestly is not sure we need mercy, thank you very much. It’s that part that bristles at confession or Lenten discipline of repentance, that part that wants to let God know how lucky God is to have us on the team. Check out the parable Jesus told about a Pharisee and tax collector at prayer (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee (perhaps ancient version of an Episcopal priest) gives thanks that he’s not like that loser sitting in the back pew. The tax collector simply asks for mercy. Guess which one Jesus said went away justified, set in right relationship to God?

We are reading the Gospel of Matthew at our church this Easter season, as part of the Good Book Club (Go to www.goodbookclub.org for more info). This week’s reading includes the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), which begin by saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit. I am helped by another translation that renders the verse: Blessed are those who know their need of God. That knowledge, that intention, that awareness seems to be critical to a life of blessing.

And if there is any silver lining to this strange season, perhaps it will be a recognition of our own need of help from a source greater than ourselves, our dependence on others, our dependence on the Holy One. Maybe idolatrous illusions of independence and self-sufficiency can subside for the sake of beloved community, where we care for each other, rather than attack each other or blame each other as together we experience that God’s mercy endures forever. Maybe we can live our lives animated by mercy and grace, not judgment or fear, acting on the belief that in the end, love wins.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

Consider this great resource for personal spiritual growth during this pandemic (when many of us find ourselves sheltering in place).

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (April 13, 2020)

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Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.

-Frederick Buechner

Christ is risen!

We give thanks for the gift of Easter that runs beyond our expectations,
beyond our categories of reason, even more, beyond the sinking sense of our own lives.

We know about the powers of death, powers that persist among us,
powers that drive us from you, and from our neighbour, and from our best selves.

We know about the powers of fear and greed and anxiety, and brutality and certitude, powers before which we are helpless. And then you – you at dawn, unquenched, you in the darkness, you on Saturday, you who breaks the world to joy.

Yours is the kingdom…not the kingdom of death,
Yours is the power…not the power of death,
Yours is the glory…not the glory of death.
Yours…You…and we give thanks for the newness beyond our achieving.

Amen.

-Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven Rooted in Earth 

The Lord is risen indeed

Stating the obvious, this has been an Easter like no other. Yet for those who might be interested in authentic observance, perhaps some kind of reenactment of the first Easter as described in the gospels, maybe this year we are closer to that first Easter than we might imagine. The gospels have no record of great crowds in churches, arriving at worship early to assure a seat, glorious choral music, flowered crosses, pithy, passionate, life-changing sermons, resplendent Easter dinners, perfected fashion statements, spectacular haberdashery, let alone chocolate, bunnies or egg hunts.

What actually took place on that first Easter?

Social distancing.

Disciples cower in a room behind locked doors, afraid they might be next. A few women go early to the tomb before the crowd is out on the street. While there are hints of the beginnings of celebration and rejoicing, the predominant emotional responses include fear, doubt, confusion. Even when the risen Jesus is in their midst, disciples don’t quite get it.

Those emotional responses sum up a lot of the way that we go through life. Maybe this year, we feel a bit more like those first century disciples than like participants in some Fifth Avenue Easter parade, with all the frills upon it. And while I can’t wait for this virus to go away, it may bring with it a gift of recognizing what Easter is really about. By God’s grace, there may be some learning.

For while we need celebration and festivity and joy, and while the news that Jesus is alive is the best news our church has to offer, we all navigate life, especially these days, with fear, doubt, confusion. And that’s precisely where Jesus meets us. In our own woundedness, our vulnerability, our fear, all palpable in this crisis, Jesus comes showing us his wounds as well. He could have come in demonstration of political power or religious vindication or liturgical pageantry or a reprise of triumphant entry into Jerusalem. That was not his way.

Instead, in private encounter, he speaks Mary’s name and she recognizes him, as he begins to mend her breaking, grieving heart. He breaks bread with two Emmaus-bound disciples and they see him in that simple meal, when their deep disappointment had clouded vision. He doesn’t berate Thomas for skepticism but shows a simple pathway to belief, inviting him to worship. He forgives Peter’s three-time denial giving Peter a chance for a three time-expression of love. All that happens on that first Easter.

Which brings us to the ways we observe Easter. You may have noticed that clergy often get cranky with people who show up at church just for Christmas and Easter. I confess that it used to bug me. I’d find all kinds of passive-aggressive ways to make the point. (I’m quite good at that, by the way.)

But there is a point to be made. Christmas is not really understood unless you see it in the context of a corner of an oppressive empire where a refugee family finds no place to stay and a monarch wants to kill all the male children. In that context, joy to the world is pretty powerful. Love wins.

Similarly, the joy of Easter is not fully understood if it hasn’t involved the way of the cross, the observance of Good Friday, walking that path of challenge and suffering that comes to each of us, particularly acute right now for many. Again, love wins. It may well be too early to open up the economy, but I think Easter comes at the right time.

Because that’s where Jesus shows up. Right in the middle of our mess, showing by his wounds that he knows what woundedness is all about. Easter is where Jesus stands up, which is what resurrection means: to stand again. (He’s a stand up kind of guy.) And because he did that, our faith tells us that we can stand up too, and we can give others a hand to help them stand up too.

Put that all together and it presents a very good reason that we can now finally say “Alleluia” even from a distance.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (April 6, 2020)

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The Collect for Monday in Holy Week:

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Collect for Tuesday in Holy Week:

O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

The Collect for Wednesday in Holy Week:

Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

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Jay Sidebotham, Church Pension Group

At sundry times and in diverse manners, members of congregations where I’ve served have pointed out my growth opportunities. Some have done so with considerable energy. I have in recollection a guy who wanted to know what I was thinking in scheduling Holy Week and Easter in the middle of the local school’s Spring vacation. Hadn’t I even checked the calendar?

The fact is, it never occurred to me in 30 years of ministry that anything might interrupt our most holy week. We observe it when calendar tells us. It’s non-negotiable. Maybe it’s a failure of imagination, but I had no idea what could be so important to change that. I’ve always been committed to keeping the church up and running come what may. (Maybe it’s a point of pride, even hubris.) I’ve walked to church in several feet of snow. I’ve held services in the dark when power outages knocked out electricity. I’ve overcome roads closed by downed wires and even led worship without my morning Starbucks. 9/11 did not stop us from having services. So it feels odd (to say the least) to enter this Holy Week from a social distance, church locked, services online.

A friend commented about this season: This is the lentiest Lent I’ve ever lented. If Lent is a season about giving things up, we’ve knocked that one out of the park (Sorry if that’s a painful metaphor for grieving baseball fans). The current multi-faceted crisis calls for us to give up a lot. It will undoubtedly teach us many things. Like Lent, compared to times in the wilderness, it is a season of both challenge and formation. We will come out different on the other side.

So what might we learn? As we come to the end of Lent, think about what it means that the season calls us to self-examination. As we strip away much of normalcy, daily trips to classrooms and workplaces, casual interaction with friends, dinners at restaurants, gatherings in churches, we may gain insight into what really matters to us, where our priorities lie. We may find out what we really miss. We may find out what we didn’t need after all. As we contend with anxiety and fear, as we face needs for physical and emotional healing, as we pray for brave souls on the front lines of this war, we may gain insight into where we place our trust. We may grow in compassion for those who contend with deprivation 24/7, 365 days out of the year. Take some time this week to reflect on lessons for you and your community.

And as we come to the beginning of Holy Week, we can wrap our minds around the ways we will observe it. I’m pretty sure that however we do that, it will be different than in years past. It may be observed in isolation. It may be observed online. If on some level, we are not feeling the challenge and the pain of what our world is going through, then I suspect we’re probably not paying attention. So even at a distance, we turn to the liturgies of our church, the prayers and stories from scripture to be our guide as they have guided others through the wilderness in the past.

The collect for this Monday in Holy Week (included above, along with others) invites us travel the way of the cross. That cross is different for each one of us. Can we travel that way? The collect for Tuesday invites us to see a way of life in an instrument of death, the cross. Can we embrace that vision? The collect for Wednesday invites us to endure suffering for the glory that will come. Can we keep our eyes on that prize? Let these prayers shape our believing as we walk through this Holy Week, one like we’ve never experienced before.

A friend had to break the news to her grandchildren that she would not be traveling to be with them for Easter, and that they might not be able to celebrate Easter at church. The young granddaughter responded: “Well I guess Jesus is just gonna stay dead this year.” So let me say to this young faithful friend, and remind myself, that while we might not be together on Easter (just like the first disciples who were practicing social distancing behind locked doors), Jesus does not stay dead. We will experience his loving, liberating liveliness in new and unexpected ways, thanks be to God.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (March 30, 2020)

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The wound is the place where the Light enters in.

-Rumi

There is a crack in everything God has made.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

-Leonard Cohen

To be a monk is to have time to practice for your transformation and healing. And after that to help with the transformation and healing of other people.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 

-Matthew 10:1

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

-Revelation 22

Healing Prayer

I don’t know if you have this experience, but as someone who has been hanging around the church for a while, I’m continually surprised with the ways that words I’ve said over and over, hymn texts I’ve sung a million times, familiar passages of scripture come to life, striking me as if I’ve never heard them before. I confess (spiritual shallowness alert) that it can become routine. I can get bored or distracted. My mind can wander in worship. And then a phrase will come to life and grab my attention. I take that to be the enlivening work of the Holy Spirit, breathing new insight into old forms, maybe even resurrecting them.

Some of you know that in response to the current health crisis, and my own self-quarantining, I’m leading online Morning Prayer on weekday mornings (You’re welcome to join us weekdays on St. James’ Parish, Wilmington Facebook page.) It’s been a hugely helpful spiritual exercise for me this Lent. Though I can’t see or hear those on the call, I sense their prayers and presence, as we spend time each morning praying for healing in this unprecedented season.

I’ve said Morning Prayer maybe six bazillion times…not a boast, just an observation…but what has struck me anew since we started this discipline is the couplet from the suffrages (where officiant and people pray responsively). It’s taken from Psalm 67: Let your ways be known on earth, your saving health among all nations. As the global maps on TV show us contending with this crisis in almost every region, we are praying each morning for God’s saving health among all nations.

Reflect with me on those words. What do we mean by God’s saving health? The phrase is redundant. Salvation is about healing. It is about being made whole. It is the work God does. It is the work Jesus came to do. It is the work passed on to the church.

And maybe that healing work is a way to describe everything the church is called to do, healing of body, mind, spirit, memory, relationship. Healing as peacemaking. Healing as the work of social justice. Healing as priorities set forth by our Presiding Bishop, himself a healer, calling us to racial reconciliation, creation care and proclamation of good news.

It’s mysterious work for sure, for all kinds of reasons. For starters, healing is not the same as cure. Why are some fervent prayers apparently answered and others are not? That goes on my list of questions for the pearly gates. Then there’s the mystery of why this kind of suffering is allowed at all. And all of it is made more complicated by bad theology, those crazy, craven corners of Christendom which regard this crisis as God’s judgment, or seeks to blame this crisis on others, foreigners or people with different political or social points of view or whatever serves their purposes.

We live with the questions, seeing through a glass darkly as St. Paul noted. In the meanwhile, we’re asked to think about how we might be healers this week, in these unusual days in which we live. It’s a ministry accessible to everyone, because everyone can pray, even if it’s the eloquent one-word prayer: help! We pray for God’s saving health to be known among all nations. And we allow our prayer to turn into action. Support for hospital workers. Donations to fund meals for school kids. Phone calls to those who are anxious or alone. Agitating advocacy to make sure our leaders are on their game as healers.

Carry with you today these questions posed by wounded healer, Henri Nouwen: “Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love?These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (March 23, 2020)

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Dear People of God:

The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy  Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of  notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

-From the liturgy for Ash Wednesday page 264 in the Book of Common Prayer

Invitation to Lent

My wife sometimes tells me I would have made a good monk. I don’t know if that’s compliment or complaint. I am finding that social distancing is not as challenging for me as it might be for some of my more extroverted colleagues. It does strike me as strangely appropriate that we contend with all of this in the season of Lent. So here we are. Here’s what we’ve been given. So the persistent faith question: What will we do with what we’ve been given?

The season of Lent has specific intentions, articulated in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday. The officiant invites people to the observance of a holy Lent (included above). I’ve been thinking about those intentions, reflecting on how we respond to them in this particular, peculiar, perilous season:

Self-examination: Unsettling global events have a way of driving self-examination. Add to that isolation and we have time and space to reflect on our own lives. What do we value? What is important? Where are we giving our hearts? We see too many examples of the unexamined life. Case in point, from the shores of Florida as hordes of revelers flocked to the beach. One told a journalist: “If I get Corona, I get Corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.” I don’t mean to pick on the kid. I just wonder if he holds up any kind of mirror for me.

Repentance: One of the challenges of school closings is that we have millions of kids who won’t have meals otherwise. How did that happen in a country of such prosperity? This is just one example of the need for a collective change of direction, which is what repentance is all about. Where else do we hear the call to repentance, as a community and as individuals? How can we turn from a life focused on self and move in the direction of a life focused on others?

Prayer: As I said last week, in times like this, prayer should be first response, not last resort. A friend told me that her pastor once said from the pulpit that he had gone through a personal crisis and had tried everything. Nothing worked. So he decided to pray about it. A last resort, perhaps a rare moment of candor from clergy, the admission that in many ways, for much of the time, we are functional atheists. What would it mean to recognize God’s presence in the thick of this current mess? What would it mean to talk with God about that, a lot? To draw on strength beyond ourselves, the kind of help we now need? To pray without ceasing, as St. Paul advises.

Fasting: In Lent, that can mean going without food, booze, sweets. Maybe some fasts will be presented to us without our choosing. We may find that some things we considered to be necessities of life suddenly aren’t so important. The New Yorker cartoon shows the guy forced to work at home. Caption: It’s true. All those meetings could have just been emails!

Self-denial: Self-quarantine is just one example. It’s no fun, especially for those non-monks among us. But if ever there was a time to get ourselves out of the way and focus on others, focus on the greater good, this might be it. What might we give up for the sake of others? How might we orient our energies towards workers who lost their jobs? What creative, compassionate responses can we offer for people who work in hospitality industries? What can we do for folks under the radar: elderly living alone, homeless under the bridge, parents losing sleep in the middle of the night over unpaid bills, health workers lacking equipment they need? The list goes on.

Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word: You don’t have to dig deep to find biblical stories that parallel our current crisis. I don’t simply mean the various plagues visited on biblical peoples. I think of the oppression of the Pharaohs, the exodus through the wilderness, exile from homeland, the way of the cross, the persecution of the early church. The psalms are filled with stories of folks who feel like God has abandoned them. In other words, what we experience has been experienced before, in varied form. And God was present in it all.

Can you see how the intentions of the Lenten season correspond to this moment? As grim as it may seem, as cloudy the future, as people of faith, we can withstand when we can’t understand. We can proclaim when we can’t explain. And here’s what we proclaim this Monday morning: People of faith have made the journey through this kind of thing before. They came to realize, as we will, that they were not left alone in that journey. They discovered that dead ends can indeed become thresholds. And as Julian of Norwich said, as her ministry unfolded in the midst of plague, they knew that in the end, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org